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Why Niebuhr Matters (Why X Matters Series)…
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Why Niebuhr Matters (Why X Matters Series)

by Charles Lemert

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For several years, I’ve had Reinhold Niebuhr’s “Moral Man and Immoral Society” and “The Nature and Destiny of Man,” by far his two most well-known books, resting on my bookshelf, but never felt it urgent enough to read them any time soon. In some ways, Charles Lemert’s book about the elder Niebuhr brother changed this. This book’s main strength is Lemert’s hagiographic voice, one that is almost always prepared to mount a passionate and reasoned defense of Niebuhr’s views; its main weaknesses are frequent and somewhat lengthy jeremiads into political and social issues Niebuhr was never able to address himself, because they took place after Niebuhr’s death, and which often come across as sanctimonious grandstanding on the part of Lemert.

Niebuhr was born in Missouri, the son of German immigrants. His father was a German Evangelical pastor (which was absorbed into the United Church of Christ in the 1950s). His origins were austere, but there must have been something truly special going on in the Niebuhr household: not only did Reinhold become a leading theologian and ethicist, his brother Richard taught the history of religion at Yale, and his sister Hulda was a vocal proponent of Christian education and professor of divinity in Chicago at a time when women were still rarely afforded the opportunity to attend university, let alone be awarded teaching positions.

After attending Yale Divinity School and taking his M.A. (but never the terminal Ph.D.), Niebuhr took became a pastor at a small church in Detroit where he quickly became enamored with the culturally and economically liberal message of the Social Gospel, and spoke out against what he thought were the abuses and greed of Henry Ford. Lemert discusses Niebuhr’s roots in concepts of social justice, his activism, his ever-patient pastoral care while in Detroit, and his eventual move to Union Theological Seminary in New York. While, as we’ll see in a moment, Niebuhr soon abandoned his political liberalism (understood in the contemporary sense of socially and economically progressive), his early experiences undoubtedly shaped one of the questions that would continue to shape his life’s work: How can one balance individual liberties and issues of social justice?

Niebuhr went to Union Theological Seminary to teach in 1930 where he would remain for a generation. Soon after arriving, his avowed Marxism slowly started to change into what we would recognize today as Christian Realism. His earlier liberalism (here understood in the broader sense of the word) affirmed humanity’s ability to better itself through the application of reason, technology, science, and legislation, whereas Christian Realism posits that societies are corrupt and – and here is perhaps the most damning part – that people are unwilling to admit these deficiencies to themselves because of sin. Niebuhr thinks of sin not so much as a theologically or ontologically unchanging category. Rather, he saw it as the inability of people to recognize their own limitations - probably something an atheist could get behind, even if they are wary of the word “sin.”

Soon after he arrived at Union, Niebuhr published “Moral Man and Immoral Society” (1932), a trenchant critique of American liberalism (again, the broad sense). He says that while individuals are often capable of moral behavior, nation-states and societies rarely are because their actions are so tied up with various interests which complicate to the point of impossibility ethical action. Niebuhr courageously takes their ideas to their natural conclusion: National values – sometimes, though not always expressed by those chest-thumping “patriots” – must be corrupt. This is a daring suggestion, and one that Niebuhr would maintain throughout his life which spanned much of the Cold War, a time when such chest-thumping was popular. What is the solution? Increased devotion or time in church? Not really. His critique of the Church was just as harsh. In “Moral Man and Immoral Society,” Niebuhr says of the religion and the Church that they “encourage love and benevolence … by absolutizing the moral principle of life until it achieves the purity of absolute disinterestedness and by imparting transcendent worth to the life of others” (p. 61). In other words, they have a bad habit of making otherworldly (or “transcendentalizing”) very worldly concerns, allowing us to focus on them less and less. Niebuhr’s later book, originally a set of Gifford Lectures published in 1943 as “The Nature and Destiny of Man,” is a truly sobering account of human beings and their place in the world which touches on some of the same issues and more fully develops them.

It may be clear why skeptics or even atheists can see something to agree with in the corpus of Niebuhr’s thought. There used to be, and it still might be around, a group that identified themselves as Atheists For Niebuhr. Morton White, the American philosopher and historian of ideas, wrote this about them: “Those who applaud his politics are too liable to turn to his theory of human nature and praise it as the philosophical instrument of Niebuhr’s political agreement with themselves. But very few of those whom I have called “atheists for Niebuhr” follow this inverted logic to its conclusion: they don’t move from praise of Niebuhr’s theory of human nature to praise of its theological ground. We may admire them for drawing the line somewhere, but certainly not for their consistency.”

In a time when the United States is probably the most religious of first-world countries, it’s more than curious why a figure like Niebuhr would be marginalized as much as he is. It may be because most American Protestant evangelicals are politically conservative, whereas Niebuhr, even the later Niebuhr, was progressive regarding secular issues. Or maybe, especially after 9/11, our naïve ideas about national innocence and purity are too unquestioned to spark a sincere appreciation for and conversation with a thinker who derided cheap patriotism and national exceptionalism. But if the United States ever develops something resembling a left-wing cultural evangelicalism, its founders could do worse than to look to Reinhold Niebuhr – a thinker whose willingness to criticize both his own intellectual roots and those of his country was never weakened by a felt need for conformity or popularization.

Lemert’s personal polemics and grudges sometimes come through in the book, but those faults are his own. His exposition of Niebuhr, however, made me curious to pick up Niebuhr’s original work and finally – finally – read him for myself. ( )
2 vote kant1066 | Apr 14, 2013 |
"Any reader with an interest in social theory or Niebuhr himself will find this a rewarding read."
added by Christa_Josh | editLibrary Journal, Scott Duimstra (Nov 1, 2011)
 
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0300175426, Hardcover)

Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971) was a Protestant preacher, an influential religious thinker, and an important moral guide in mid-twentieth-century America. But what does he have to say to us now? In what way does he inform the thinking of political leaders and commentators from Barack Obama and Madeleine Albright to David Brooks and Walter Russell Mead, all of whom acknowledge his influence? In this lively overview of Niebuhr's career, Charles Lemert analyzes why interest in Niebuhr is rising and how Niebuhr provides the answers we ache for in the face of seismic shifts in the global order.

In the middle of the twentieth century, having outgrown a theological liberalism, Niebuhr challenged and rethought the nonsocialist Left in American politics. He developed a political realism that refused to sacrifice ideals to mere pragmatism, or politics to bitterness and greed. He examined the problem of morality in an immoral society and reimagined the balance between rights and freedom for the individual and social justice for the many. With brevity and deep insight, Lemert shows how Niebuhr's ideas illuminate our most difficult questions today.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:07:27 -0400)

"A leading social theorist analyzes how and why a revival of interest in Niebuhr has taken place, ultimately arguing for his political and moral relevance today"--Jacket.

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